It’s three acts all the way down.

Mailbag time!

You mentioned before each story needs to contain three acts. The issues themselves within each story also need three acts, correct?

This is where I’m running into some problems. I’m having difficulty finding ways to break the story into multiple scripts (3 to 5 issues per volume) while still maintaining three acts per issue. Any advice you can give me on this would be greatly appreciated.

Three act structure is one of those things that’s incredibly simple but can be hard as hell to wrap your brain around when you’re just starting out. It’s so pervasive it becomes difficult to notice. You can intuitively sense its absence as a kind of clunkiness. But merely being aware of when it’s not there doesn’t necessarily help you to create three act arcs of your own.

The trick is to realize: it’s three acts all the way down.

Each story has three acts. Each chapter of that story has three acts. Each scene of each chapter has three acts. Each conversation of each scene of each chapter has three acts. In a sense, though at this magnification our definitions begin to blur, each line of dialog has three acts.

All you need is a set up, a conflict that follows from the set up, and a resolution that follows from the conflict. This’ll come naturally with practice. It might feel a little artificial to you, especially at first, but that’s because you’re the puppetmaster of the story and you naturally know where the strings are.

By way of example, let’s look at how first issue of the fifth volume of Atomic Robo breaks down. I’ll describe each scene in three acts. I’ll show how these scenes combine into the three acts of the issue. Lastly, we’ll see how the whole issue serves as the first act of the larger five issue storyline.

And, honestly, it’d be easy to describe the three acts of each of these scenes with varying degrees of “well, this is part of the set up, but this is part of the conflict,” etc. It’s not an exact science and that’s what made it so difficult for me to wrap my head around three act structure for an embarrassingly long time. School made it seem like the boundaries existed on a map with very important mineral rights at stake. But no. These things are fuzzy and that’s okay. The precise end of a given act and the beginning of the next is less important than the fact that there is a set up, a conflict that arises from that set up, and a resolution that follows from that conflict.

I mean, when Luke and Obi-Wan recruit Han to get the hell outta Dodge/Tatooine: is that still the set up? Or did the set up end when they needed to get off-world so seeking passage is part of the conflict? Answer: a convincing case can be made either way and it doesn’t matter.

That said: let’s break down Atomic Robo Vol 5, Issue #1 starting with the first scene. Uh, spoilers ahoy!

Set Up:
A masked man, Jack Tarot, is in a car chase with some mobsters in Chicago.

Conflict:
Jack wants to catch the mobsters but the mobsters want to get away! The mobsters try to lose him by driving like maniacs down back alleys and side streets and such. Jack shoots out one of their tires.

Resolution:
The mobsters crash. Jack finds they died in the wreck, neither party really gets what they want. Jack finds a clue pointing him to New York City.

Let’s look at the very next scene.

Set Up:
Robo is at home and bored to death of super science.

Conflict:
Tesla needs Robo’s help to conduct some more (incredibly boring) super science! Robo moodily goes through the motions and, alas, the super science fails.

Resolution:
Tesla finds the failure fascinating, but Robo continues to be unimpressed with super science.

And the scene after that.

Set Up:
Later that same night, Robo’s still stuck at home doing chores. Meanwhile, mobsters drive by in a car with Jack Tarot clinging to the hood. Robo follows and soon finds the scene of the wrecked car.

Conflict:
Robo wants Jack to mentor him. Jack wants Robo to get the hell out of his way so he can conduct his investigations. Ideally, Jack wants Robo to go away forever. Unfortunately, Robo does the opposite of that and Jack’s quarry gets away. Jack point blank refuses to mentor Robo and storms off. Robo is depressed.

Resolution:
But then Robo decides Jack’s refusal was merely a test of his commitment and gives chase once more. Meanwhile, the mobster slinks off in the shadows.

And the scene after that.

Set Up:
Jack returns to his HQ, discusses what went wrong with his daughter / gadgeteer / assistant. Unbeknownst to Jack, Robo successfully tailed him…and then discovers the secret entrance.

Conflict:
Robo still wants Jack to mentor him. Jack is even more adamant that it will never happen. But now Jack’s daughter is on Robo’s side. She thinks he’s proven himself to be quite clever not to mention bulletproof. She thinks he’d make a great addition to the team.

Resolution:
Jack grudgingly gives in to his daughter’s wishes in part because of the force of her personality and in part because it’s becoming clear that Robo is something of a 500lb gorilla whom he cannot force to leave.

And the last scene.

Set Up:
The mobster who got away earlier shows up at a warehouse at the docks to deliver whatever ill-gotten gains they were getting for our Shadowy End Boss.

Conflict:
The mobster says these heists for Shadowy End Boss aren’t worth the hassle. Shadowy End Boss says the mobsters are adequately paid for their efforts. Mobster thinks maybe taking out Shadowy End Boss would be the easiest way to get out of trouble. Shadowy End Boss has a Big Fuckin’ Robot who stops the mobster.

Resolution:
Shadowy End Boss lets mobster get away with his life because he’s pleased that the mobster was able to pull off the heist. Apparently what he delivered is so valuable to Shadowy End Boss that he’s willing to overlook the implied assassination attempt.

That was each scene of the first issue broken down into three acts each! As well, all those scenes together form the three acts of the issue.

Set Up:
Jack Tarot’s tracks unusual mobster activity from Chicago to NYC. Meanwhile, Robo wants to give up lab work for adventure.

Conflict:
Jack’s investigations have him cross paths with Robo. Jack instantly dislikes Robo and wants him to get out of the way so he can get to the bottom of this weird mob business. Robo refuses to give up on his dream of becoming an adventurer and bungles Jack’s efforts. The mobsters get away!

Resolution:
Helen, Jack’s daughter convinces her father to mentor Robo. Shadowy End Boss gets an important component he’d hired the mobsters to steal for him.

Lastly, the issue is the first act of the larger story that makes up the whole volume.

Set Up:
Robo is bored by super science, meets a crimefighter, and tries to join him. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure is using mobsters to commit strange sci-fi robberies.

Maybe it seems like a lot of juggling and planning to get all these three act matryoshka dolls to line up, but it’s really not. The artifice of storytelling lends itself to three act structure. If you have a story in mind, it already has all three acts. Your job as the writer is to make minor adjustments here and there to your presentation of the story to make sure they exist in the final product.

Still, it might help to start small. I sure did. Most pages of 8-bit Theater have three acts: a set up, a conflict/action/gag, and a resolution. And some pieces of the archives have three acts. But the 1,224 page beast as a whole? Nope!

And look at Atomic Robo. Individual issues have three acts, but what about the volumes? Vol 1 was one-shots. Vol 2 was one-shots with a theme. Vol 3 had a specific arc tying all its issues together, but even those were one-shots. Vol 4 was random one-shots again. No, it wasn’t until Volume 5 that we had a full three act multi-issue storyline. That’s not a coincidence. I was consciously working on narrative scales with which I was comfortable.

So, y’know. Don’t sign up for a marathon before you’ve got walking locked down.

  • Anonymous

    Act 1 of Star Wars ends when our protagonist, Luke, changes his goal from “get the droids back and get home” to “go with Obi-Wan to rescue the princess and become a Jedi”. Putting the act break after they recruit Han and Chewie and leave Tatooine doesn’t work because the main character hasn’t changed what he’s trying to do.

  • http://twitter.com/l_c_black Lee Black

    I would like to suggest that the original letter-writer check out Martha Alderson’s Blockbuster Plots for further study! She covers all this as well as the way pacing should inform structure, which everyone in the world who tells any kind of story needs to read so we can cure Sagging Middle Act Syndrome in our lifetime.

  • http://www.nuklearpower.com Brian!

    Oh, sure.

    That was just the first thing that popped into my head to illustrate, “Here’s a thing we’ve all seen: here’s how it could appear to be part of Act 1, here’s how it could appear to be part of Act 2.”

    I’m dealing with three act structure in broad strokes in this article because that’s how I came to figure it out. My formal education on the matter was all about the details, and something about that presentation failed to impart upon me the value of what was being taught. But starting from the general and going back to the particulars made it all click with me.

  • http://www.nuklearpower.com Brian!

    Come to think of it though: Star Wars also illustrates what goes wrong when you’re more interested in building the world than in building the structure through which the audience will experience it.

    Episodes 4 – 6: Three Acts all up, down, and across those bastards.

    Episodes 1 – 3: Uh…? Trade Federation. Queen elections. Uh. Clones.

  • Anonymous

    Didn’t Lucas take like 4 years to write the script for the first Star Wars? And like 4 weeks for each the prequels?

  • Teknoarcanist

    I think it shines through especially more so in comics than other mediums, because of how straightforwardly comics present the fact that they’re, literally, a captured sequence of events, frozen for viewing.

    It can really get maddening when you start breaking acts up into smaller acts.  Or when you have to resist the urge to outline everything in multiples of three.

    Five-act structure is worth looking into as well.  It’s a little clunkier, but it seems like it works better the longer a piece of writing gets.  The five seasons of The Wire probably sum up the principle better than anything else I’ve seen.

  • Teknoarcanist

    Lord of the Rings is another good one.

    Exposition — From the beginning to the council at Riverrun.  Here’s the world, and the problem, here’s what we’re gonna do about it.

    Rising Action — From Riverrun on.  Shit goes wrong as complications unfold.  People turn on one another.  The fellowship disbands, they’re taking the Hobbits to Isengard, etc.

    Climax — Helm’s Deep and thereabouts.

    Falling Action — The siege takes its toll on Gondor while the Hobbits make the last leg of the journey, ditch the ring, and save the day.

    Denoument — Marriages, medals, taking back the shire, sailing off to the undying lands; a series of overlapping conclusions, scaling all the way back from the big world events to the personal character stories we set out with at the beginning which, when taken all at once, leave the reader sad, exhausted, and absolutely satisfied.

  • http://www.nuklearpower.com Brian!

    Oh, dear lord. I think you’re right. The dialog of the prequels all read like outlines. Not even first drafts.

  • RichterCa

    In keeping with your 3-Act Structure idea, it’s almost as if Lucas took this TOO MUCH to heart, and made Episodes 1-3 almost entirely the First Act of the larger Star Wars Saga.

    This is why they’re boring as hell.  They’re entirely more interested in setting up Episodes 4-6 than they are at being self-contained 3-Act Structures of their own.